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Saab & the Mainstream

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Still Flowing Toward the Mainstream

Saab aims for sport touring sedan experience with its new 9-3 lineup.

Monday, February 6, 2006

By Frank Aukofer - Scripps Howard News Service

Like a flamboyant circus acrobat relegated to a support role, Saab has lost some of its audience appeal. Sales of its sport sedans and wagons, the 9-3 and 9-5, have slipped.

To bring back some of the luster, the Swedish company added a couple of new models, though they weren’t really Saabs. One is the 9-2, a reworked version of the Subaru WRX, and the other is the 9-7X SUV, based on the Chevrolet Trail Blazer.

For 2006, it also has added the 9-3 SportKombi, a four-door station wagon version of the 9-3 sport sedan. The 9-3 at one time was a four-door hatchback, which didn’t sell well, so in 2003 Saab switched it to the standard notchback sedan configuration favored in the United States. Now, without a hatchback, it’s bringing a wagon.

Saab, an aircraft company originally named Svenska Aeroplan Aktiebolaget that turned to making aerodynamic automobiles after World War II, now is owned by General Motors, which gave it the 9-7X and, through its partnership with Subaru, the 9-2.

Though those two models likely contribute something to the bottom line, the remaining 9-5 and 9-3 models have treaded water as their sales weakened during the last few years despite the 2004 introduction of a convertible version of the 9-3.

Over the years, Saab developed a reputation as a manufacturer of automobiles that, to paraphrase one of its advertising slogans, found their own road. Originally powered by three-cylinder, two-cycle engines, Saabs evolved into cars that were frequently out of the mainstream but had qualities of performance and handling that attracted a small but loyal band of followers.

Following in that tradition, the 2006 9-3 four-door, the subject here, is marketed as a premium sport sedan that competes with the likes of the BMW 3-Series, the Audi A4, Volvo S60 and V50, and the Mercedes-Benz C-Class. Its only remaining quirk is the Saab trademark of locating the ignition lock on the center console instead of on the steering column or dash.

Though it’s priced competitively and is a pleasant, even endearing, everyday driver, the tested 9-3 doesn’t have the crisp feel of a sport touring sedan like the BMW 3. Handling is tight and secure, but without the sharp moves of some of the competition. It feels more like a competent compact family sedan.

That, of course, is not bad. Moreover, there are customers out there who are attracted to Saab’s European panache and overall performance.

The suspension system is supple enough to soak up most road imperfections, although it is biased toward the handling end of the spectrum so the ride is anything but cushy. On the other hand, the 9-3 is commendably quiet cruising on high-speed expressways.

The tested 9-3 was the base 2.0T model, powered by a 210-horsepower turbocharged four-cylinder engine. Though there’s some slight turbo lag, noticeable mainly on part-throttle automatic-transmission upshifts, the engine is strong and rapidly propels the 9-3 to extra-legal speeds. The five-speed automatic transmission shifts crisply when you’re accelerating quickly; more smoothly in leisurely driving.

Because of the rapid onrush of the turbo power, there’s some tug at the steering wheel when accelerating around a corner. That’s a phenomenon among powerful front-drive cars, known as torque steer.

With a base price of just $26,620, the base 9-3 slots in against some family cars. But options soon kick up the sticker.

A five-speed automatic transmission (a five-speed manual is standard), adds $1,350. A premium package, which included such amenities as leather upholstery, a navigation system and wood-grain interior trim, added another $3,890, and heated seats, headlight washers and sundry other items brought the bottom-line suggested price to $32,960.

In keeping with European luxury-car practice, Saab also charges $550 extra for the “jet black metallic” paint job.

The 9-3 sedan is classified as a compact, which gives it optimum dimensions for modern urban traffic. It measures three inches longer than 15 feet, and has room inside for four people to sit comfortably, as long as the two in back are not too long in the thigh. There’s a seatbelt for a third passenger in back, but the position is impossibly cramped.

Up front, the bucket seats are supportive and comfortable over long distances, though they could stand a bit more lateral support for spirited driving on curving roads. The power-adjustable driver’s seat, combined with a manual tilt-and-telescoping steering wheel, means people of almost any size can find a comfortable driving position.

The dashboard, with the optional navigation system, has a busy look and so many buttons that it takes some time to become familiar with all of them. One button, labeled “night panel,” snuffs out the lighting for all the instruments except the speedometer.

Down on the center console is a storage compartment and a single large cup holder. The parking brake handle is cleverly integrated into the console design, but requires familiarity to use. If you position your thumb at the top of the handle, as is customary on most parking-brakes, it gets pinched when you release the brake.

Frank Aukofer writes for the Artists & Writers Syndicate.

Saab 9-3 specs:

Model: 2006 Saab 9-3 2.0T four-door sport sedan.

Engine: 2-liter turbocharged four-cylinder, 210 horsepower.

Transmission: Five-speed automatic.

Overall length: 15 feet 3 inches.

EPA passenger and trunk volume: 93 and 15 cubic feet.

Weight: 3,200 pounds.

EPA fuel consumption: 22 miles per gallon city, 31 highway.

Base price, including destination charge: $26,620.

Base dealer cost: $25,284.

Price as tested: $32,960.

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Except for the lime green color on that convertible and the SportCombi body style, the 9-3's a big yawn to me, and that's why its sales are down. They have potential, its not being used, and if GM doesn't use it pronto, then just flush it.

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Saab should never have done the 9-2x and the 9-7x. People aren't fooled. Only bright spot is the 9-3. The 9-5 is dated and very much an old man's car.

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